The Value of Attractive Food

Source: Ladies Home Journal (July, 1911)

Creating lovely food presentations can be a time-consuming task – and it really adds nothing to the taste or value of the food. Is it important to present food in attractive ways?

Here’s what a home economist in training had to say a hundred years ago:

The Value of Attractive Food

Having kept house before I took my domestic-science training I used to think that the use of pretty dishes and garnishes, and the serving of foods in unfamiliar but pleasing guises, were clever but a useless way of showing off before company.

Now I now know that these things have an actual physiological value. For instance, my sister, fifteen and anaemic, had a very capricious appetite and could not be induced to eat sufficient nourishing food, things that have an actual physiological value.

From my study of physiology and kindred subjects I learned how very closely the nerves of sight and smell are connected with those affecting the digestive organs, and how the very sight of attractive food causes certain digestive processes to begin.

Thus certain nourishing soups that sister ordinarily would not touch were eaten when served in a pretty china cup with a spoonful of whipped cream, the cream adding to its nutritive value, and a leaf or a flower at its side.

She needed eggs but refused them boiled, poached, or before my enlightenment, fried. Later she ate dozens of them worked up into attractive desserts or smuggled into unfamiliar dishes made appetizing and attractive enough to tempt her into sampling them.

She not only ate food which she would otherwise have refused, but, because she enjoyed eating it, she digested and assimilated it and became a new kind of girl.

M.W., Teachers’ College (Ladies Home Journal, February, 1917)


39 thoughts on “The Value of Attractive Food

  1. I think the fact that certain foods taste good makes them attractive, not how they look. I love peasant food, simple unadorned, straight from the pot. I once had a blog titled I DON’T DO GARNISH meaning, I don’t cook fancy foods.

  2. To make attractive dishes has its place,one which I don’t do real often as I’m not a fancy cook,but please if you do make a attractive dish be sure it taste good for there’s nothing more disappointing than a beautiful dish that tastes HORRIBLE ! That’s my rule.πŸ˜„

  3. I agree with all the previous comments. I’m a pretty good cook, but presentation isn’t my strong suit. With hot food, I think appetising smells trump good looks.

    1. Whipped cream makes desserts and other foods special. I’ve rediscovered whipped cream in recent years. Until I started this blog, I seldom made real whipped cream from scratch – now I do it relatively frequently.

  4. I like the look of pretty food, but I tend to only cook peasant food. Haha!

    I do agree that food that tastes good tends to be perceived as beautiful, though. Our senses link up to each other in all kinds of interesting ways as Sheryl’s post pointed out. πŸ™‚

    1. It’s so hard to know whether good taste results in food being perceived as attractive, or whether attractive food makes people perceive it as being tastier.

  5. I don’t usually take much time to pretty-up our food, but then we’d be better off if I made it downright ugly. We wage a constant battle of portion control. Most people didn’t think that way 100 years ago, did they?

    1. People were just beginning to become aware of calories a hundred years ago, and they seemed to worry less about weight back than they do now, but I have seen articles in old magazines that were about over-eating and gluttony.

  6. I agree completely that an attractive meal is important. That doesn’t mean it has to be “fancy,” as in an expensive restaurant, but it’s always better if it’s visually pleasing.

    I think you might enjoy a post I once wrote, about the experience of hauling out the china after tropical storm Allison. It’s exactly on point, I think.

    You’ve also reminded me of “The Nun’s Story,” a Reader’s Digest condensed book I read when I still was in grade school. I’ve never forgotten one bit of the plot. The sister came down with TB, and her doctor wanted her to have two raw egg yolks every day. When she first was presented with them, they were in a crystal goblet. She demurred, saying her vow of poverty certainly wouldn’t allow it. The doc said, “Sister, to a tubercular patient, presentation is everything.”

    1. I agree! Food can be served in attractive and pleasing ways without being fancy. During difficult times it can be so empowering to create beautiful things. It’s interesting how some stories stick with us across the years.

  7. I love to collect serving pieces at yard sales, and mix and matching them when I have little sit-down dinner parties (not often, and usually only 4-5 people, as I don’t have space around my tableβ€” plus I get “anxious hostess” attacks when cooking and guests start arriving). To me, setting the table is the most relaxing and fun part of the prep. Meanwhile, what are those red things on the plates in the photo? Roses? Steak tartare? πŸ™‚

    1. I want to think that taste is more important than presentation – yet I know that taste and presentation work in tandem to create superb foods.

    1. It has – Based upon what I’ve seen in old magazines I get the sense that people cared a lot about attractive foods and beautiful tablescapes a hundred years ago.

  8. Feast your eyes first, then the taste buds. Ignite all our senses before you eat the food. Enjoying the food is a real art!! Beautiful share sheryl.

  9. Presentation is something I struggle with daily. Usually by the time I’ve finished cooking I can barely stand or sit to eat. But I do believe that attractively presented food does begin the process. “We eat first with our eyes.”

      1. I make an effort for the recipes I make for the blog. When it’s just time to feed Mr. C and me I don’t worry. I don’t throw things all over the plate but I don’t fuss.

  10. Presentation is hugely important, that’s why some restaurants can charge more for a beautifully presented small meal but a large plate of slap-up grub can not be priced high. The quality of the food could be the same but the presentation provides more of an experience and an air of sophistication that customers are willing to pay for.

  11. Like many other things, this sadly has less value today. But it makes a difference in how people feel, about food, eating, and sometimes who they are–they they are worth the time and effort.

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